As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Shaffner.
Steven Shaffner is Senior Vice President of People Strategy and a member of the Executive Leadership Team at Sharonview Federal Credit Union. He is responsible for positioning Sharonview as an employer of choice and overseeing the Talent Management, Learning & Development and Facilities teams. Since joining Sharonview in 2008, Shaffner has consistently built strong, high performing teams. He started out as a branch manager, and his branch was one of Sharonview’s top performers in membership and consumer loan generation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ll start from the beginning. My wife and I went to college, got married, lived in our small town of Galax, Virginia, for six months and said to each other, “We can’t do this anymore.”
Galax is gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. We both grew up there, and our families are still there. We loved it, but the job market isn’t the best.
We decided to move within six hours, in any direction, of our hometown. We started applying for jobs, and my wife got one in Hagerstown, Maryland — near Baltimore. Within two weeks of moving, I got a job at a finance company.
I joined the company’s management training program, moved to several different branches, kept transferring to bigger and bigger branches and kept getting more and more responsibility.
Eventually, we wanted to be closer to home. I found a job at Sharonview Federal Credit Union in the Charlotte, North Carolina, market — within two hours of Galax. I came into the organization as a branch manager at our Shelby, North Carolina, branch 13 years ago. There was a vast difference in the cultures of where I had been and Sharonview.
In my old job, numbers were all that mattered. Sharonview was so refreshing. Here, people matter. I was excited about the culture and about the people I got to work with day in and day out. I still am.
So much of what I’ve accomplished is because of the leaders I’ve had at Sharonview. Their trust in me and their coaching has helped me get to where I am.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Moving to the Human Resources field and into the role of VP of Talent Management. My entire career up until then had been spent in retail banking. I came up through the ranks in retail, made it to VP of Retail Delivery at Sharonview, where I led the branches and member operations.
And then, about four years ago, this HR opportunity came up. I discussed the possibility of the HR role with Ricky Otey, our Executive Vice President. I didn’t think HR was for me; I thought of it as payroll and benefits.
As we discussed HR, I started to view it differently. I began to think about what I wanted HR to be — an integral part of the business. I wanted to be part of the business that’s driving us ahead.
I had viewed HR as filling job openings, making sure we met payroll, making sure employees understood their benefits. I viewed it as a support service. I didn’t want to get moved out of the business aspect of the organization.
But what I found was that it starts and ends with people. We can have all these systems, all these processes, the best facilities. But if we don’t have the right people in place, none of it matters.
So, it’s been extremely rewarding. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. Over the last three years, in this role, I’ve gotten to help figure out the goals we have as an organization, the things we want to achieve and ask: Do we have the right people to get that done?
And a question that’s just as important: Are we doing the right things for our people to get and keep them excited about meeting this goal?
I’ve completely changed my perspective on what HR is, and it’s been an absolute blast. I now realize it was never a support service. It’s always been essential. HR is the very heart of a business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
It’s not a quote, exactly. But I remember something my dad said to me when I was 18. We were walking out of a bank right after he had co-signed for me to get my first car loan for a two-door Honda Civic. He said, “If you work hard and take care of the things that matter, you can have almost anything you want.”
It still resonates with me to this day. Both my mom and dad have worked hard all their lives. They take care of the right things — like, putting family first — and they have a good perspective on life. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. There was a lot of wisdom in that brief comment.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
There are several. This book isn’t about leadership, exactly, but “The Ideal Team Player” by Patrick Lencioni is a great book that causes me to look at who I’m surrounding myself with. I strive to surround myself with people who have the three qualities Lencioni cites — humble, hungry and smart. And “smart” in this case isn’t necessarily “book smart.” It’s “people smart.”
When I’m hiring somebody, I look for those traits.
Another great book is “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John Maxwell. It has short chapters and is easily digestible. I can pull a chapter from that book, and it stands on its own. If I need a refresher on a particular topic, I just go to that chapter. I turn to this book again and again, and every time I read it, I get something new and different out of it.
Many of us at Sharonview have read lots of Maxwell and Lencioni. Our CEO, Bill Partin, is a big reader — especially books on leadership — and he often shares his recommendations. There’s sort of an “unofficial library” at our company.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Plain and simple, culture is what matters most, what makes the difference. And it’s easy for me to say we’ve got a great culture. Not too many companies are going to say they have a terrible culture. But what matters is that our employees say it. We monitor it often through pulse surveys and engagement surveys.
We have 324 employees now. If someone joins and they don’t fit our culture, they don’t last long. They usually sort of self-select out.
The kind of person who doesn’t fit our culture is someone who wants all the credit, someone who’s not a team player. If someone comes in and they want to work in a silo, they won’t be happy here.
This is how important culture is to us: Our first interview is not actually an interview. We call it the “culture talk.” It has nothing to do with your skills. We will never ask you to add 2 + 2, even if you’re interviewing for an accounting job.
This is a half-hour conversation between a candidate and someone from HR, and it is simply about culture. We look to see if you fit us, if we fit you. Because we don’t fit everybody. And we like to find that out as early in the process as we can. And it’s best for the candidate to know that early, too.
We’re looking for several things — like how big of a collaborator you are, what drives you, if you have a mindset of inclusion.
And if somebody goes through the culture talk and they don’t seem like they’re going to be a good fit, it doesn’t matter how impressive their resume is. They don’t get to the first interview.
I’m not going to tell you we nail it every time. But the culture talk has really helped us bring on the right people who are going to thrive here.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
You cannot do it alone.
You have to surround yourself with smart people who are going to be honest with you.
And then you have to have the right attitude.
You have to look for ways you can impact the company — not just your area or your department.
Also — and this is key — you have to let people on your team know that it’s OK to disagree with you. Tell them you really want honesty. Different perspectives are what get you to the best answer. And when they give it to you, celebrate it.
I’ll give you a recent example. I was so proud of someone on my team. I was set on doing social media pre-screening for job candidates. We were going to look for a company that reviews social media accounts for inappropriate posts.
A young woman on my team said, “Can you help me understand what we’re trying to solve here? Because I think this may be a waste of time.” I asked her why.
She said, “We already have our culture talk, and it’s working. It helps us screen out people who wouldn’t be a good fit. On top of that, our company is very different than it was a year and a half ago. We have changed since George Floyd’s murder. We’re having tough, important, conversations. I’ve had conversations with people that I never would have had before. I would hate to not give someone the opportunity to come here and experience our culture because of something they posted a couple years ago when they didn’t know any better.”
It was amazing. Her perspective as an African-American woman who has been having these challenging conversations is invaluable. When she finished, I said, “I agree with you. I could not have said it better myself. You have completely changed my perspective.” And I thanked her for challenging me, for pushing back. It was the right thing to do.
I sent her a message later to reiterate my gratitude for her speaking up. I told our CEO about it, and he sent her an email, too. He wrote: “Thanks for having an opinion. Thanks for getting us to the right answer.”
If you encourage honesty among your teammates, you’ll always arrive at a better answer.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
This wasn’t so much advice but more of a directive, I think. At the first company I worked for, as I said, it was all about numbers — hitting the numbers, making the numbers, sales figures, profits. People did not factor into management decisions at all. It was my first real job, and I didn’t know how different things could be. And ought to be.
If I had it do over again, I wouldn’t stay at a company that held such different values from my own. I think it’s crucial that people work for companies whose values align with their values. It’s one of the reasons I say culture is the most important thing.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Be a reasonable risk taker. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I resisted moving to HR at first, but it’s the best career move I ever made.
- Be a collaborator. Realize that you’re not the smartest person in the room. Everybody brings something unique to the conversation. Look for ways to bounce ideas off others and share differing opinions. That’s how you get to the best answer.
- Stay observant. Watch other leaders, so you learn what to do and what not to do. If you can learn what not to do without going through the pain yourself, you’ll be much better off.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
One of the things that shocked me when I first joined the executive leadership team was the feeling that I’m not responsible for just my department. I need to think about all 324 employees and have their best interests in mind.
It’s not enough, at this level, to just be an expert in your area. You’ve got to understand enough to be able to speak to the business as a whole.
It is a totally different mindset. You have to have a holistic view.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think there may be a perception that if you make it to the C-Suite, you know it all. You suddenly have all the answers. But the truth is: We all still have things we can learn. You don’t have all the answers. Executives make mistakes like everybody else. It’s no different. You never “arrive.” There’s always work to be done, you can always learn more.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Thinking they can do it all alone. That’s a huge mistake.
Surrounding yourself with good people — and listening to them — can help you avoid a lot of missteps.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Balancing people and business. I think you’re constantly doing that balance. You know, always asking: How do we take care of our people in the best fashion, and then how do we ensure we have a strong business today that will still be strong five, 10 years from now?
Because you want to do everything you can for your people — the best benefit plans, the best pay, everything. And I think we do a great job of that, but you still always feel like you want to do more.
Another thing I think of as a struggle is, as the organization grows, you want to ensure consistency across the employee experience. Since no two people are the same, not every leader is the same. But I want every employee to have a great experience at work. And part of that is having an exceptional leader.
I’m constantly watching and looking and seeing what’s going on in other areas. I’m always trying to make sure that everybody has what they need to be successful.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I first got into this role, I felt like there was a microscope on me — like everybody was watching me, that I was on a big stage. So, I tried to get everything perfect, which is, of course, impossible. If you try to be your ideal of “an executive” instead of just being yourself, you lose your human connection. You lose what got you here in the first place. So, I’ve tried to not take myself too seriously. I’m the same person I’ve always been. I’ve grown up with this company.
- Keep things in perspective. Our employees are people first. They are parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends, neighbors. They are volunteers in the community and their kids’ schools. They have lives outside the office. This sort of goes back to what my dad told me about working hard and taking care of what matters. At the executive level, you have to keep a clear — and broad — perspective. That leads into the third thing I wish someone had told me …
- Don’t overreact. When someone brings a problem to you, as an executive, it is a big problem to them. It’s a five-alarm fire for them. But it may not really be, in the big scheme of things. If I were to get overly excited about everything brought to my attention, I’d be in a state of alarm all the time. If I get overly excited about a problem presented to me, it just validates the employee’s anger or fear or feeling that everything’s falling apart. There’s no mistake anyone can make here that can’t be fixed. Thank goodness we’re not performing brain surgery. It’s all fairly simple. Part of my job is sometimes to say, “Let’s breathe. Let’s figure out what do we need to do right now and what do we need to do to fix this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
- You will never get everything right, so don’t try to. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I first got into this role. I had the feeling that I couldn’t afford to mess up anything. I held myself to an impossible standard. If you try to be perfect, you will run yourself into the ground. Perfection doesn’t exist. We should all aim high, but aiming for perfection only sets you up for disappointment.
- Prioritize and protect your time. Don’t let the little things that pop up take you away from the task at hand. If you’re always reacting, you can never be proactive.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Letting people know that you value honesty, that you want their honest opinion and then when they give it to you, celebrating that and thanking them for sharing a contrary point of view.
Also, empower people. Empower the people around you to make decisions. Let everybody know where you stand. Let people know what’s working, what’s not working and be transparent. It’s not always easy to tell them when things aren’t going well, or that something isn’t working, but they will respect you and trust you much more if you are transparent.
It’s easy to be transparent when everything’s great. It’s not so easy when things aren’t going well, but I think if you treat people with respect — even when you’re delivering bad news — you get better outcomes. Ultimately, we’re all in this together.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d start an employee engagement movement. I’m not sure what that would look like. But I know that happy and engaged employees lead to happy and engaged members. At credit unions, we have members — not customers. If you treat your employees right, they’ll treat your members — or customers — right. It’s a positive for everyone involved. So, I guess I’d say to treat the people around you right and then they’ll treat the people in their circle right. I believe many organizations undervalue their biggest strategic advantage, their people.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Connect with me at www.linkedin.com/in/steven-shaffner/.